black mary, shirts, owls, raptors, flamingos, the quite involuntarily surreal Chateau d’Avignon & enjoying Abrivado

Abrivado, our hotel, seems to be run by a group of young(ish) couples. Relaxed atmos. Geezers in mufti. No superiority bullshit or internal hierarchy visible. Guy who brought brekky told us he’d personally included the juice in the set menu for us. Not: that’s what it comes with. Like the style, if not the decor. Although sun in the morning almost made sense of the ‘fresh’ pale green, the fake blond-wood-grain lino, and the various and variously clashing tones of blue elsewhere. There’s art above the bed, Picasso single-line sketches of animals and birds. Prompted a visit to the Ornithological Park up the road.

On the way we walked into another market, which led us to the church, the fortified church of Maries. Meaning, perhaps, no windows. A dramatic gloom on the inside, candles around the altar, and spotlights illuminating the display cases, one with relics, finger-bones, mainly, sealed behind windows in reaching up silver hands, another with naive art, depictions of the Maries. Above the altar, up too high to see clearly, and lit only enough to make it a mysterious presence, something that looked like a baby’s cradle, whether for death or life hard to say. Below the altar, breathing a warm breath out into the aisle, the gaping maw of the crypt.

After the preparation of the main interior, this cave, lit with hundreds of candles, was scarily powerful. Here, Sara, patron saint of the gypsies, who is carried out to the sea May 24-5 every year, weighed down in layers of dresses, capes, as if without them she might shoot straight up into heaven. She, like the mysterious virgin of Le Puy, is another black Mary. You could see the affect she was having even on casual touristy visitors, drawing them in and striking them speechless. Like a true Roma idol, she makes people rustle in their pockets for change, to light a candle, make an offering.

The gypsies play music and belt out songs down here in the preternatural warmth of this cave. Somehow the space holds this memory. Left us feeling very strange, floating, legs not working.

Appropriate, then, to be visiting birds. The biggest owls in the world. Kept in a cage. Like fat flying tabbies. Herons, egrets, and clamorous ducks, of many different hues. One similar to the NZ native. These were free. Out in the walkway circuited morain. And white ibis and flocks of nictating, bill-trawling, pirouetting, bloomer-flouncing, real pink flamingos, the mothers and cerise children arguing in their guttural language.

And then we saw beavers. Wild. Dodging across the path, swimming in the ditches and streams. First a long time wondering if there might be some there and we might see one. Then the surprise of a furry face being propelled down a muddy shrub-lined drainage ditch. Then several sightings as they crossed our path, behind, in front. Finally, one carried in a swift stream, snacking on something growing within reach on the bank, which we followed for a time.

We also saw raptors, large and small, in cages, smaller owls. Although the flock didn’t take flight as in movies, we did see a flamingo flying. It looked, with the dark red and black of the undersides of its wings, like a dragon, long, trailing its legs like a tail.

On the way to our pre-booked ‘promenade a cheval’ we picked up sandwiches. The gardian theme apparent even here. Always the strong flavours and greasy goodnesses getting the title. Anchovies and tomatoes on oily bread.

This guy had been recommended by our brilliant Abrivado. But pulling in to the tumbledown corral, 4 km from town and tucked away from the mainstream, mainline of horse-ride-camargue industry, we were less than impressed. Hoping, as one does, that crappy might connote authenticity, a disregard for appearances. Sullen dirty Spanish-looking youth eyeballed us from plastic furniture. We walked past down beside the stables, where J. met horse-eye and averred later it was a sad one. There hairy large Lou sauntered forth. He was kind of threatening. I introduced us as the booking under the name of, and he said, Not till three. Three, I repeated. Three.

He disappeared and dirty leery rat-face man came out, Lou adding his presence from the background. Rat-face said, Allemand? Deutsch? Anglais, I said. He proceeded in German, saying, Whatever you like, German, French, English. French, I replied in German. What do you want? he asked.

A ride, I answered. And the whole set-up seemed all about taking us for a ride. Three o’clock, he said.

I checked my phone for the time. Quarter to. I explained to Lou, I said. We’ve booked. We’re a little early.

The weird stand-off continued, with rat-face wanting to play games and show off. Lou lurking, ominous, silent and dismissive.

J. nudged me: We don’t feel like a ride today. Not today, I cheerily informed rat-face. No? he said. No.

Thanks, I said, returning to French. Have a good one. Sorry, rat-face called after us. Good-bye.

It was stupid and impossible to understand what was going on with these guys, Lou and rat-face. Some sort of macho test?

One should always call people up on being arseholes in whichever language and culture they are doing it. But… that doubt: perhaps for you this is acceptable behaviour?

We were out. And didn’t know what next. The tourism office recommended Mas de Cure. There, however, nothing was up. So over the road to Chateau Avignon, after an 19th century settler, called Avignon who drained the swamps, piped in water from the Petit Rhone. And built the Chateau as a hunting lodge.

The place was deserted. A trestle fence had a no entry sign and a suited guy jumped out of his car with a walkie-talkie as we pulled up to tell us to park beside the only other vehicle there and proceed to the Accueil, Welcome. We did.

The same palaver with walkie-talkie ahead to tell the door to open to the Chateau. All the shutters shuttered, the rooms dark. And another of those stupid ‘exhibitions’ – which extended beyond the Chateau, it turned out and invaded the other buildings and gardens. A desperately embarrassing lack of curatorial consistency or aesthetic rationale. Absolute rubbish in some of these gorgeous rooms, OK stuff in others.

The house was clearly still occupied. From outside, we saw the tower shutters were held open. One could only imagine a Miss Haversham, gone funny with age. Talked into displaying second-rate art by interested parties. What could she have thought? Coming across a paint spattered screen in her dead father’s cousin’s bedroom?

A surreal experience entirely. The out-buildings particularly. The factory, where the old pumps were now housed Dr. Who style stereoscopic view-pumps, emitting a Tardis-like breathing. When one looked in one saw a landscape reproduced in miniature in rubber breathing, rising and falling, in time with the spooky soundtrack. This was the good art. Along with a kitchen full of rows of artificial red apples.

J. and Q. built sandcastles on the Mediterranean, looking out, we fantasized, towards Manarola, our Cinque Terre Ligurian starting point. Here we are in Celto-Ligurian Gallo-Roman Socialist-Idealist France!

Dinner again down in the restaurant. J. swapped with me and had the Gardian stew, rich local beef, with olives and Camargue rice. I opted for the cuttlefish a la Provencal, which came with a roast potato wrapped in tinfoil, melting fresh white goats-milk cheese and herbs on the inside; plus a roasted half of tomato with layers of aubergine, courgette and cucumber again with Provencal herbs on its top.

A red was recommended with it. No tannins. Hermitage from Nimes, 2009. Perfect accompaniment. And then shared profiteroles. Best I’ve ever had. Warm outsides; cold ice-cream insides: with Chantilly cream and almond slices. Q. ran aground on his banana split, a chocolate sauce as thick as fudge.

They brought us a little freebie shot of Carmarguaise to finish. Like a grappa, made from vegetables and herbs. 50 proof.

This is excellent too, this Domaine du Coulet Rouge Cabernet, 2006, from the Vaucluse. So strong it you might think it was fortified. It isn’t.

Our food experiences here have been something to write home about. But this has been largely to do with superb service. A seriousness about the job of serving, coupled with a casualness in social attitude. Best of both worlds.